Terry Jones, without peer among the fearless
I remember, as a young man in 1970’s America, when I first discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was, all at once, hilarious, brain-busting and, frankly, scary. Anarchic, cerebral and existentially unmoored from both punchlines and linearity, the show was so different from anything I had experienced that I was simultaneously entranced and terrified. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was the Book of Revelations set to muzak, with a smarmy emcee in a cheap suit and with puns.
I was too young to see The Holy Grail in theatres and when The Life of Brian was released I was not allowed to see it, having been told it was blasphemous. I grew up Roman Catholic at a time when the adults were grappling with The Church; between warning the boys not to be found alone with Father McPedo and warning the girls (and wives) not to be alone with Father Handsy; and dealing with the three steps forward, two steps sideways, and a days march backwards of Vatican II; we were taught to fear ahead of time. That’s why I wasn’t allowed to see a movie that the adults hadn’t seen either.
But being a latchkey kid and, indeed, encouraged to watch PBS, I soaked up Flying Circus. With its subversive shards of jumbled up reality, quick-witted u-turn plotting, whiplash scene changes, and rat-a-tat dialogue, watching it I would surf a rising delight alongside a mounting frisson of anxiety as I tried to figure out what it was that scared me.
Of all the Pythons none scared me more than Terry Jones. To the extent that any of the Pythons had a consistent persona it was Jones’ persona that felt most alien to me.
Michael Palin had a diffidence and a wary eye, seemingly meeting this craziness with the same sort of unsteadiness I felt. Graham Chapman had a querulous and warbling insecurity that informed his bombast and who most often mirrored the unexpected turns, ellipses and plotlines of both the show and the later movies. (Which is probably why he was the ‘lead’ — such as they were — in both Holy Grail and Life of Brian.) Eric Idle often played the cynical man-child not sure if he should feel guilty enjoying a world he didn’t understand. And John Cleese, often the ‘straight man’, marched heedless and brash, headlong into whatever was in front of him with a stern, sometimes even malevolent, confidence.
While they were all fearless, it was a courage that seemed in grappling tension with their fears. That kind of courage I could understand. That kind of courage I knew.
Not so with Terry Jones. I don’t think he understood fear in the same way as the others and this was distinct. I remember the shock I felt the first time they cut to a piano-playing Terry Jones wearing nothing but a collar and tie. There he was, in the altogether, with a grin of unearthly generosity spread across his huge jaw, seemingly unfazed by the sheer chaos of the world around him: If it was Ragnarok, he seemed to say, might as well make it a jaunty Ragnarok. If he felt fear at all, it was not going to lessen the sheer joy at the marvelous, chaotic, magnificence of it all and it certainly wasn’t going to cause him to be anything less then unfailingly kind. All by himself he was a complete counterpoint to the bullish, sometimes even cruel, emotional thrashing-about of the other Pythons: kindly and joyous in equal measure, unfazed and ready to be generous. It was not something I was prepared to understand.
I had, it turns out, been taught to fear this kind of fearlessness.
As I grew older I was able to see, first, the Holy Grail and later Life of Brian on video. I love them both in equal measure but for very different reasons.
It was The Life of Brian, which Jones co-wrote and directed that was — in a certain species of pun — a revelation: It wasn’t at all blasphemous but it was indeed heretical; It wasn’t just an attack on organized religion but on the slap-dash organizing of religious thought as it was hardening into unalterable dogma. The sins of the wish-fulfillment-Messiah-seekers, rather than anything at all about the Messiah, was the target; The reading of signs — sometimes the wholesale creation of signs — and the inversion of them through interpretation, re-interpretation and deft, not to mention daft, mixing of particularized logic and generalized wishing and conclusion-jumping at the periphery and in the margins… that was rich ground for satirical commentary.
It was directed with palpable exasperation and the ridicule was pitch-perfect.
It was side-splitting, gaspingly funny. And it was true.
No wonder the Church didn’t want me to see it.
And in the course of the movie a sense of similar heresy awakened in me, connecting to the discomfort I felt at, and in, The Church. Reinforced by repeated viewings, The Life of Brian was but one step on my journey away from the Catholic Church, and by no means the largest step, but it was a step of such a particular timbre that I cannot forget it.
I do not think my journey would be quite the same had Terry Jones not shown, at the same time and in the altogether, an utter fearlessness alongside a radiant joy and a gentle kindness.
It gave me some notion that this marvelous messy chaos we are in can still hold joy and kindness. He showed me something other than a pinched and angry spite at the vicissitudes of the world, something to which I might then aspire and to which I continue to aspire: fearlessness, kindness and naked joy.
Terry Jones of Monty Python died this week at age 77. He died after years of slowly being robbed of his words by a particular dementia.